9-11 Panel Won't Get Extension

WTC -- 9-11 --- The twin towers of the World Trade Center burn behind New York's Empire State Building in this Sept. 11, 2001 file photo.
House Republicans say they will not extend the deadline for a report by the commission studying the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, forcing a timeframe that the panel's chairman has warned will truncate the investigation.

USA Today reports that a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert on Wednesday said of the debate over extending the deadline: "It's over."

President Bush supported the commission's request for an extension. But Hastert spokesman John Feehery said the speaker wanted the panel's recommendations implemented soon.

Hastert also "doesn't want this to become a political football … and fodder for the presidential campaign," Feehery told USA Today.

The extension would have had the final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon The United States coming out on the eve of the Democratic National Convention in July.

But the commission's leaders had said the extension was needed to "complete planned interviews and document review, to hold several sets of hearings in Washington and New York, and to complete a strong and credible report."

"We will do the best we can with whatever time we have," commission spokesman Al Felzenberg told USA Today. "We'll cut whatever corners we can."

Hastert's move infuriated some victims' families.

"To say that politics is going to stand in the way of national security is just disgusting," Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband died at the World Trade Center, told the newspaper. "It's not our fault that we're in an election year. President Bush could have established this commission Sept. 12, 2001."

The panel's work has been delayed several times by disputes over access to sensitive material.

In July, chairman Thomas Kean — a former Republican governor of New Jersey — said the CIA, Justice Department, Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security were stonewalling. In December, the panel reached a deal with New York City to end a standoff over access to tapes of 911 calls and firefighters' oral histories.

For months the panel wrestled with the administration over who could see top-secret briefings given to Mr. Bush in the days prior to Sept. 11, 2001. It was resolved this month, with a few panel members getting permission to see the briefings.

Most recently, the commission has jousted with the administration over testimony by top officials. Mr. Bush agreed to talk to the commission, but the White House later said he would meet only Kean and vice-chairman Lee Hamilton, a former congressman. Other panel members protested. Vice President Dick Cheney also agreed only to meet the panel's leaders.

"We hope the president and the vice president will reconsider," Kean and Hamilton said in a statement Wednesday.

Also Wednesday, the commission thanked former President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore for agreeing to meet with the entire committee in private.

But it criticized national security adviser Condoleezza Rice for refusing to testify at an upcoming public hearing.

"We are disappointed by this decision," the statement read. "Although we have met privately with Dr. Rice, we believe the nation would be well served by the contribution she can make to public understanding of the intelligence and policy issues being examined by the Commission."

Besides the disputes over evidence and testimony, internal problems have also plagued the commission.

The New York Times has reported that several staffers and commission members have had to recuse themselves from certain parts of the probe because of their ties to the Clinton administration, the Bush transition team or the airline industry.

The commission got off to a rocky start when the first chairman and co-chairman, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Democratic Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, resigned because they did not want to disclose their business dealings, which may have posed conflicts of interest.

Kean hinted last year in an interview with CBS News that Sept. 11 may have been preventable.

"As you read the report, you're going to have a pretty clear idea what wasn't done and what should have been done," he said. "This was not something that had to happen."

The panel this week said it was reviewing a tip, received by U.S. intelligence in March 1999, that appears to be one of the earliest signs that U.S. officials had about one of the 2001 hijackers.

It also may have represented a missed chance for U.S. intelligence to uncover a terror cell in Germany that was a key element of the hijacking plot.

"The commission has been actively investigating the issue for some time," Philip Zelikow, executive director of the commission, said Monday.

"I'm not going to comment on the progress of our investigation, but the Hamburg cell and what was known about the plotters" is an important part of the review, he said.

The Times, in its Tuesday editions, quoted German intelligence officials who said they had given the CIA the first name and telephone number of Marwan al-Shehhi, and asked U.S. officials to track him. The Germans said they never heard back from U.S. officials until after Sept. 11.